The American TV drama series This is Us has a neat concept: the story of a Pittsburgh family is told with constant jumps between time frames, the parents suddenly younger and the children parents themselves. It’s confusing at first, but soon the parellels become obvious – non-linear lives in which the big themes of love, death, family and friendship are the same no matter what year it is.
Which brings us to Bruce Springsteen’s twentieth album and another reunion with his long-term backing gang The E Street Band. At 71, he’s definitely thinking about his legacy, having published his autobiography, Born to Run, in 2016, and performed a one-man show full of reminiscences 236 times on Broadway between 2017 and 2018.
These 12 songs feel like the whole story at once. As Letter to You opens with One Minute You’re Here and the classic rock and roll image of a “Big black train comin’ down the track,” he’s weary and grieving, thinking of those he’s lost: maybe the E Street Band’s mighty saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011. He’s similarly sentimental on Last Man Standing, which names New Jersey venues played by his first Sixties band The Castiles and observes over ringing guitar notes that Springsteen is now the sole living member.
Then he goes backwards in an even more emphatic way. Three songs have come from a demo that he made for Columbia Records in 1972, the year before his debut album. Even newly recorded with a muscular, full band sound, it’s clear why in the early days he wasn’t generally viewed as a true original but put in a cabinet with all the other “new Dylans”. The lyrics on If I Was a Priest are a particularly elaborate pile-up of religion and Americana, with Jesus appearing in “a buckskin jacket, boots and spurs so fine.” Song for Orphans throws in cheerleaders, the Civil War and a tramp called Dog Man Moses.
Yet he puts all these refound treasures and memories together with the vigour and speed of a much younger man. The whole thing was recorded in five days last November, with songs completed in around three hours a piece. This band that has worked together for half a lifetime sounds enormous, especially on the runaway Burnin’ Train and the air-punching Ghosts. Even if there aren’t many more in the future, everything you could want from a Springsteen album is right here.